Loving the Loot - The Psychology of Collecting Stuff


Posted May 24, 2012 - By G4 Staff

As gamers we love loot. Love it. We see something drop from an enemy encounter, and we rush up to it, eager to get our grubby, battle-scarred hands on it. It doesn’t matter if we play alone, with friends, frenemies or clans, we just can’t get enough of the good stuff after battling.

Have you ever thought about why we’re so loot obsessed? If you take a step back and think about it, what we’re getting excited about is a collection of pixels on a screen, and often the actual content of the loot is close to worthless in terms of the game itself. So why do we get so excited when we see it?

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The typical set up in a loot-heavy game is a generous reward system – you get loot for nearly every encounter (so it’s a plentiful resource), but you only get the good stuff every so often. Rare loot is a precious, wonderful find, and the schedule by which you’ll get it is set in such a way that you’ll always think it’s possible – so you’ll continue to keep fighting, keep going, and keep trying for the good stuff. It’s rare, but not so rare that you feel hopeless and give up.

If this sounds a bit like the way casinos run, you’re correct. Payout schedules on slot machines are adjusted to the same principle – the house wants you to keep playing, so they’ll throw you a bone every so often. And sometimes – just sometimes, that bone has some serious meat on it.

What’s going on here is operant conditioning, by way of positive reinforcement. Good old BF Skinner coined the term (and noted its forms) back in the 50s when he was doing behavioral experiments on rodents, which, like it or not, applies scarily well to the human world.

“In Positive Reinforcement a particular behavior is strengthened by the consequence of experiencing a positive condition. For example: A hungry rat presses a bar in its cage and receives food. The food is a positive condition for the hungry rat. The rat presses the bar again, and again receives food. The rat's behavior of pressing the bar is strengthened by the consequence of receiving food.”

What’s most important to note is the frequency in which you are rewarded (aka, how often loot drops) for your successful baddie-slaying. This is technically called a reinforcement schedule, and game designers typically use a variable ratio schedule, for the highest addiction factor.

Ever feel like a rat in a maze? Well, when you play Diablo, Borderlands, or basically any MMO, you basically are. At least it’s a very attractive, fun maze. Plus, you always have the excuse that you’re just acting according to behavior codes that are hard-wired into your brain. It’s human nature!

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The idea of good game “flow” is fairly simple. Optimal flow exists in the zen-perfect state between boredom (where a player’s tasks are too easy for their skills, or simply not interesting enough) and stress (where the tasks are too hard for a player’s skill level). The best games present long, satisfying flow states that keep players happily engaged – challenged but not frustrated, and eager to keep going.

So the rat in the maze – or the player – who is having a blast performing challenging (but not too challenging) tasks, and being rewarded for his/her performance on a variable ratio schedule is swimming happily in a blissful flow state.

A recent Gamasutra piece explains the idea of flow in games:

“While in these states, people experience:

--Extreme focus on a task.

--A sense of active control.

--Merging of action and awareness.

--Loss of self-awareness.

--Distortion of the experience of time.

--The experience of the task being the only necessary justification for continuing it.”

If that doesn’t describe a skilled Diablo player in full glory, I don’t know what is.

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Collecting is a natural instinct that tends to run especially strong in gamers. Think about how many games revolve around collecting items, objects, powers, doo-dads or, yes – loot! If it’s true that “he who has the most toys, wins”; then players who prefer loot-heavy games have a leg up on the rest of society.

Deep down, the desire to have more stuff (and collect more loot) is almost primal. The ability to successfully things (like food and firewood) meant the difference between life and death to our ancestors, so hording instincts are hardwired into all of our brains. That goes doubly so for cool stuff, and loot is specifically designed to be attractive to us – it gives us gameplay perks and bragging rights, plus it usually looks cool.

Now, if only we could add loot mechanics to real life...

Danielle Riendeau is a freelance writer, digital media professor, and nonprofit web ninja from Boston.

Loving the Loot - The Psychology of Collecting Stuff


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